By Erica Emdon
I recently attended the Pro Bono Institute (PBI) annual conference in Washington DC. This conference, convened every year by the PBI, a United States based NGO that promotes pro bono, is a gathering of NGOs, law firms, pro bono lawyers, justice officials and bar associations (similar to our law societies and bar councils). At these annual meetings, with as many as 300 participants, people get together to share ideas about pro bono.
This year a very interesting panel discussion took place entitled ‘Mandatory pro bono or not? Is it time to make it mandatory?’
The session was run as a debate looking at whether or not the state should mandate pro bono for lawyers.
The proponent of state mandatory pro bono, Judge Lippman, said that since there has been an attack on state funding in the United States and because state funding meets less than half the need there is in the country, a strong case for mandatory pro bono is created. He believes that it is a privilege to be able to practise law and the role of the regulator should be to ensure that lawyers are meeting their obligations.
The opposing view covered by Jim Sandman is that mandatory pro bono is very impractical for three reasons:
- Mandatory pro bono places a huge burden on legal NGOs who have to manage pro bono lawyers. Pro bono lawyers need help, mentoring and training. One has to be careful of incompetent work which means that you have to fund legal NGOs to manage and train pro bono lawyers.
- You don’t want clients to be served by lawyers who have been compelled to serve them and lawyers that aren’t willingly undertaking their obligation. The clients are negatively affected.
- Practically – the definition of pro bono is frequently expanded to things like serving on bar councils and CSR. Making it mandatory allows people to fulfill their obligations in ways other than serving low income people.
He added that pro bono should be done because it is in the fundamental DNA of being a lawyer. It is part of the culture of being a legal practitioner, the raison d’etre of providing legal services, so it shouldn’t have to be mandatory.
His points are valid and raise a critical issue. If we share his view that doing pro bono is an essential element of being a lawyer, and the hallmark of the profession, why are we finding it so difficult to find enough pro bono attorneys and advocates to serve our clients, and the clients of other NGOs – the poor and vulnerable? Why are the same lawyers doing it again and again, while the vast majority show no interest or commitment to pro bono? Law society rules are putting some pressure on the latter group to do pro bono, which indicates that here in South Africa, at least for the time being, mandatory pro bono may be necessary. But isn’t the ideal that it becomes a natural and routine part of every legal practitioner’s professional life, internalised as Sandman says, into their DNA?
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